Thursday, May 11, 2006

Increasingly desperate plight of North Korean refugees

The plight of North Korea’s refugees is increasingly desperate as China steps up a "strike-hard" campaign to crack down on refugees in the border area between China and North Korea, says Tim Peters of Helping Hands Korea.

Peters, who is part of the "underground railroad" that gives refugees passage to a third country, says his job is becoming more difficult. Previously, North Koreans escaping famine and political repression were able to hide out in shelters on the border, but now these safe houses are disappearing.

Added to this is the constant fear of being repatriated by the Chinese authorities who regard them as "economic migrants" and not refugees. Back in North Korea they face prison camps or even execution.

The North Korean Human Rights Act offered hope of getting people in such a predicament to safety. Peters says that while the act was a good "symbolic gesture," it has little effect.

In theory, the act makes it easier for North Koreans to enter the United States as refugees, but Peters said when he has taken urgent cases to U.S. Embassies, he has been turned away.

When he took a "17-year-old North Korean girl who lost her father to a firing squad, her mother to the gulag and her sister to a Chinese police sweep," he felt her case was urgent because she could be picked up by a human trafficker. He approached a U.S. Embassy but was "startled by the response of one of the political officers of the embassy" who told him that there was nothing he could do.

This is just one of many cases Peters has dealt with.

He said the embassies don’t want to get involved for fear of causing problems with the host country. Also, the bigger picture of maintaining good diplomatic relations with China is given a higher priority.

The U.N. refugee agency, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, has an office in Beijing, but Peters says that they are also are unwilling to help him get North Koreans to a third country. He mentioned another case where someone who had legitimate reason to believe that his life was in danger "fell through the bureaucratic cracks" between the UNHCR and the U.S. Embassy.

[Excerpt of an article in the Korean Herald, by Claudia Rosett, Jane Cooper]

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